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Beth gave an involuntary gasp of horrified disbelief as she stared white-faced at the contents of the crate she had just opened.
'Oh, no! No!' she protested in despair as she picked up the wine glass she had just removed from its packaging, one of a suite of matching stemware she had ordered on her buying trip to Prague.
Beth closed her eyes; her face had gone deathly pale and she felt rather sick.
She had invested so much in this Czech order, and not just in terms of money.
Her fingers trembling, she opened another box, biting her bottom lip hard as the decorative water jug she had in her hand confirmed all her growing anxiety.
Three hours later, with the storeroom at the back of the small shop she ran in partnership with her best friend Kelly Frobisher strewn with packages and stemware, all Beth's worst fears were realised.
These these abominations against good taste and style were most certainly not the deliciously pretty reproduction antique items she had ordered with such excitement and pleasure all those months ago in the Czech Republic. No way. This order, the order she had received but most certainly never placed, might equate in terms of numbers and suites to what she had bought, but in every other way it was horrendous, horrible, a parody of the beautiful, elegant, covetable top-quality stemware she had seen and paid for.
No, there was no way she would ever have ordered anything like this, and no way could she ever sell it either. Her customers were very discriminating, and Beth's stomach churned as she recalled how enthusiastically and confidently she had titillated their interest by describing her order to them and promising them that it would turn their Christmas dinner tables into wonderful facsimiles of a bygone age, an age of Venetian baroque, Byzantine beauty.
Sickly she stared at the glass she was holding, a glass she remembered as being a richly gorgeous Christmassy cranberry-red with a depth of colour one could almost eat.
Was it really for this that she had put the small shop, her reputation and her personal finances into jeopardy? Was it for this that she had telephoned her bank manager from Prague to persuade him to extend her credit facilities? No, of course it wasn't. The glassware she had been shown had been nothing like this. Nothing at all!
Feverishly she examined another piece, and then another, hoping against hope that what she had already seen had simply been a slight mistake. But there was no mistake. Everything she unpacked possessed the same hallmarks of poor workmanship, inferior glass and crude colouring. The blue she remembered as being the same deep, wonderful colour as a Renaissance painter's Madonna's robes, as having the same depth when held up to the light as the most beautiful of antique stained-glass windows, the green she recalled as possessing the depth and fire of a high-quality emerald, and the gold which had had gilding as subtle as anything to come out of an expert gilder's workshop were, in reality, like comparing the colours in a child's paintbox to those used by a true artist.
There had to have been a mistake. Beth stood up. She would have to ring the suppliers and advise them of their error.
Her brain went into frantic overdrive as she tried to grapple with the enormity of the problem now confronting her. After being delayed well beyond its original delivery date, the order had just barely arrived in time for their Christmas market.
In fact, she had planned this very afternoon to clear the shelves of their current stock and restock them with the Czech stemware.
What on earth was she going to do?
Normally this would have been a problem she would immediately have shared with her partner, Kelly, but these were not normal circumstances. For one thing, she had been in Prague on her own when she had taken the initiative to order the stemware. For a second, Kelly was quite rightly far more preoccupied with her new husband and the life they were establishing together than she was with the shop at the moment, and they had mutually agreed that for the time being Kelly would take a back seat in the business they had started up together in the small town of Rye-on-Averton, where the girls had originally been encouraged to come by Beth's godmother, Anna Trewayne.
And for a third
Beth closed her eyes. She knew that if she were to tell her godmother, Anna, or Kelly, her best friend, or even Dee Lawson, her landlady, of the financial and professional mess she was now in all three of them would immediately rush to her aid, full of understanding and sympathy for her plight. But Beth was sharply conscious of the fact that, out of the four of them, she was the only one who always seemed to get things wrong, who always seemed to make bad judgements, who always seemed to end up being duped cheated hurt. Who always seemed to be a loser a victim.
Beth shuddered with a mixture of anger and anguish. What was the matter with her? Why was she constantly involving herself with people who ultimately let her down? She might, as other people were constantly reminding her, be placid, and perhaps a little too on the accommodating side, but that didn't mean that she didn't have any pride, that she didn't need to be treated with respect.
None of the other three would have got themselves in this situation, she was sure. Dee, for instance, would most certainly not have done. No, she couldn't imagine anyone ever managing to dupe or cheat Dee, with her confident, businesslike manner, nor Kelly, with her vibrant, positive personality, nor even Anna, with her quiet gentleness.
No, she was the vulnerable one, the fool, the idiot, who had 'cheat me' written all over her.
It had to be her own fault. Look at the way she had fallen for Julian Cox's lies; look how gullible she had been, believing that he loved her when all the time what he had really been interested in had been the money he had believed she would inherit.
She had been stricken with shame when Julian had left her, claiming that he had never told her that he wanted to marry her, accusing her of running after him, pursuing him, of imagining that he had ever felt something for her.
Beth's face started to burn. Not because she still loved himshe most certainly didn't, and she doubted deep in her heart that she ever had; she had simply allowed him to persuade her that she had, because she had been flattered by the assiduous attentions he had paid her, and by his constant declarations of love, his insistence that they were soul mates. Well, she had certainly learned her lesson there. Never, ever again would she trust a man who treated her like that, who claimed to have fallen crazily and instantly in love with her as Julian had done, and she had stuck to that private vow even when.
Beth could feel her heart starting to thud heavily as she fought to suppress certain dangerous memories.
At least she hadn't made the same mistake twice. No, she agreed mentally with herself, she'd just gone on to make fresh ones.
A failed romance and the public humiliation of other people knowing about it, painful though it had been, had at least only damaged her own life. What had happened now had the potential to humiliate not just her but Kelly as well.
They had built up a very good reputation in the town since opening their crystal and china shop. Because they were a small outlet they concentrated on matching their customers' needs and, where they could, innovatively anticipating them.
Kelly had already told her enthusiastically that they had several very good customers, with celebrations of one sort or another coming up, to whom she had mentioned the fact that the purchase of some very special and individual stemware might be an excellent idea.
One customer in particular had been talking excitedly to Beth only the previous week about purchasing three dozen of the crimson Czech champagne flutes.
'It's our silver wedding this yeartwo days before Christmasthe whole family will be coming to us and it would be wonderful to have the glasses for then. I'm having a large family dinner party and we could use them for the champagne cocktails I'm planning to do, and for the toasts.'
'Oh, yes, they would be perfect,' Beth had enthused, already in her mind's eye seeing them on her customer's antique dining table, the delicacy of the fragile glass and the richness of the colour emphasised by the candlelight.
There was no way Candida Lewis-Benton would want to order what she, Beth, had just unpacked. No way at all.
Valiantly Beth fought the temptation to burst into tears. She was a woman, not a girl, and, as she had thought she had proved when she was in Prague, she could be determined and self-reliant and, yes, proud too. She could earn her own self-respect, and never mind what certain other people thought of hercertain other not-to-be-thought-of, or thought about, arrogant, overbearing men who thought they knew her better than she knew herself. Who wanted to take over her life and her, who thought they could lie to her and get her to acquiesce to whatever they wanted for her by claiming that they loved her. And she had known, of course, just what it was he had wanted. Well, she had at least shown him just how easily she had seen through his duplicitous behaviour.
'Beth, I know it's probably too soon to tell you this, but I I've fallen in love with you,' he had told her that afternoon in the pouring rain on the Charles Bridge.
'No, that's not possible,' she had replied hardily.
'If that wasn't love, then just exactly what was it?' he had demanded on another occasion, and he had touched his fingertips to her lips, still swollen and soft from the passion they had just exchanged.
She had answered boldly, 'It was just lustjust sex, that's all.' And she had gone on to prove it to him.
'Don't be tempted into falling for the promises these street traders make to you,' he had warned her more than once. 'They're simply pawns being used by organised crime to dupe tourists.'
She knew quite well what he'd been after. What he'd been after was exactly what Julian had been afterher money. Only Alex Andrews had wanted her body thrown in as well.
At least sexually Julian had done the decent thing, so to speak.
'I don't want us to be lovers not yet not until you're wearing my ring,' Julian had whispered passionately to her the night he had declared his lovea love he had not felt for her at all, as it later transpired.
It seemed almost laughable now that she had ever agonised so much over his perfidy. Perhaps the acute sense of self-loathing she had experienced over his betrayal and accusations had had more to do with the humiliation he had made her suffer rather than a genuinely broken heart.
Certainly, whenever she thought about him now, which was rarely, it was without any emotion whatsoever other than a distant sense of amazement that she could ever have considered him attractive. She had gone to Prague determined to prove to herself that she was not the emotional fool Julian had painted her as being, vowing that never again would she let herself be conned into believing that when a man told her he loved her he meant it.
She had come back from Prague feeling extremely proud of herself, and equally proud of the new, hard-headed, hard-hearted Beth she had turned herself into. If men wanted to lie to her and betray her, then she would learn to play them at their own game. She was an adult woman, with all that that encompassed. Mistrusting men as emotional partners didn't mean that she had to deny herself the pleasure of finding them sexually desirable.
The days were gone when a woman had to deny the sexual side of her nature. The days had gone, too, when a woman had to convince herself that she loved a man and that, even more important, he loved and respected her before she could give herself to him physically.
She had been living in the Dark Ages, Beth had told herselfliving her life by an outdated set of rules and an even more outdated set of moral beliefs. An outdated and far too idealistic set of moral beliefs. Well, all that was over now. Now she had finally joined the real world, the world of harsh realities. Now she was a fully paid-up member of modern society, and if men, or rather a certain man, did not like the things she did or the things she said, then tough. The right to enjoy sex for sex's sake was no longer a purely male province, and if Alex Andrews didn't like that fact then it was just too bad.
Had he really thought she was going to fall for those lies he had told her? All those ridiculous claims he had made about falling in love with her the moment he first saw her?
Prague had been surprisingly full of people like him. British- and American-born in the main, students, most of them, or so they'd claimed, taking a year out to 'do' areas previously off limits to them. Some had family connections in the Czech Republic, some not, but all of them had possessed a common ingredient; all of them, to some extent, had been living off their wits, using their skills as linguists, charming a living out of gullible tourists. In Beth's newly cynical opinion they'd been only one step removed from the high-pressure-sales types hawking time-share apartments, who had made certain holiday areas of the continent notorious until their governments had taken steps to control their activities.
True, Alex Andrews had alluded to the very different lifestyle he claimed to lead in Britain. According to his own description of himself he was a university lecturer in Modern History at a prestigious university college who was taking a sabbatical to spend some time with the Czech side of his family, but Beth hadn't believed him. Why should she have? Julian Cox had claimed to have a highly profitable and respectable financial empirehe had turned out to be little more than a fraudster who had somehow managed to keep himself one step in front of actually breaking the law. It had been plain to Beth from the first moment she had met him that Alex Andrews was very much the same type.
Too good-looking, too self-confident too sure that she'd been going to fall into his arms just because he claimed he was desperate to have her there. She wasn't that much of a fool. She might have fallen for that kind of line once, but she certainly hadn't been about to fall for it a second time.
Oh, yes, she had escaped making a fool of herself over Alex Andrews, but she hadn't been able to prevent herself from
Numbly Beth studied the stemware she had unpacked. There was a sick, shaky feeling in her stomach, a sensation of mingled panic and dread. It had to be a mistake It had to be.